I found excellent vindication for my stubborn refusal to use sat nav in this enthralling investigation of our innate ability to navigate; from the earliest humans walking their way across land masses, to what cutting-edge spatial neuroscience tells us about how our brains have the ability to make "cognitive maps" to keep us orientated. The way we think about physical spaces has been crucial to our evolution, Bond shows; and we are instinctive explorers. So we make less use of the wayfaring skills we inherited from our ancestors at our peril.
Some of these passages are more nebulous than numinous, and there is sometimes a finger-wagging aspect to the book that I found off-putting even when I agreed with Bond. There is clearly a strangely obsessive side to his character. One chapter about how our brains go haywire when we get lost takes the form of a case study of a woman who strayed off the Appalachian trail, and Bond decides, against official advice, to seek out the spot where she died: “I wanted to experience the environment that had so disorientated her.”
Still, this evidence of a distinctive personality makes a welcome change in the often rather antiseptic field of popular science writing, adding an extra dimension. For the most part, however, Bond is wise enough to let the fascinating facts speak for themselves.
The pages on the role of toponyms, and why they were invented, are fascinating: fancy a trip to Puukammalatalik on Baffin Island, ‘The Place Where Someone Once Left a Pouch’? Perhaps inevitably, non-scientists will most enjoy the specific anecdotes concerning real people, drawn from locations from Pole to Pole. My favourite chapter in this regard considers the exploits of some of the most exceptional navigators in human history, on the ocean, in the air, on land, on ice and even in space. The narrative picks up speed here.
A central premise for Bond’s book is his anxiety about our modern reliance upon digital technology, especially the mobile phone and satnav. These are apparently playing havoc with the ability to navigate, but they are not alone in diminishing our common birthright. Just as damaging has been the increased physical restriction we impose on children because of a misplaced fear of “stranger danger”. This is despite well-founded evidence that just one-hundredth of 1 per cent of the children who go missing in the US are abducted by strangers.
Ultimately, “we are spatial beings” and Wayfinding skilfully and at times movingly makes the case for how deeply that is true. If we do not know where we are, it seems, we cannot know who we are either.